Unusual Suspects

Reflections on our LAB on “Different Urbanisations”

By Katleen De Flander

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From September 14-18, 2015 our first urban LAB took place in Berlin, 5 days of intense action and discussions with a group of about 15 critical urban minds from all over the world. The topic we tackled was ‘Different Urbanisations’, as in the role and limits of importing/exporting urban patterns, technology and knowledge between different regions of the world. The LAB was connected to the Critical Dialogue Series: the New Urban Agenda ‘on the ground’, which looks at crucial issues that are either overlooked by Habitat III or in need of a very different approach than currently given. Habitat III is the UN Conference on Housing and Sustainable Development, which will take place in Quito, Ecuador, from 17-20 October 2016.

The key tactics used to kick-start inspiring discussions in the LAB were good food and creative activities. These activities ranged from importing alien urban patterns in example cities, to hacking a simulated urban water system, to producing a version of the ‘Three Little Pigs’ set in the year 2050 (in which construction materials, resource scarcity, ‘modern’ vs. vernacular architecture, natural disasters and climate change were in the mix). After having experienced/survived many ‘workshops’ over the last years, in which blocks of input presentations were usually interspersed with short academic discussions, the unconventional activities in this LAB made a huge impact on the quality of the discussions and the experience of individuals and in the group.

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In discussions on Habitat III, we struggled with its framing as the beautiful goals and prescriptions found within are actually hard to criticize and quite all-encompassing. However, out of our very different daily urban contexts, there was a general agreement that these goals and prescriptions will have very little influence in reality, and worse, that they may often even backfire. A common response to such criticism is that the critical voices should take part in the policy process. In a last exercise, we took on the task of rewriting a preparatory text of the New Urban Agenda. Engaging with language such as embracing, integrating, fostering, aligning, seemed at first to kick all creativity out of us, sucking us into this same way of thinking. However, the exercise brought us finally to the heart of our topic ‘Different Urbanisations’. Here contextualization, cultural recognition (including the use of language) and locally driven trial-and-error-based solutions are at the core of and a precondition for any successful implementation of whatever the global ‘New Urban Agenda’ will prescribe. So maybe we, a bunch of unusual urban suspects from Mexico, Togo, Colombia, Germany, India, Brasil, South-Africa, Australia, UK and Belgium, could have more influence than we think?

We are now working on the outcomes of the LAB, which will be announced on www.criticalurbanagenda.com

Photos: Jana Gumprecht

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